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Runners, Writers and Support Groups

​It was Tuesday after watching our daughter run the last London Marathon before Covid 19 put its destructive spanner in the works and reduced running to 'outside exercise'. But back then I was still buzzing. The 40,382 runners who trained for this feat of human endurance had poured onto the London roads and simply kept on coming, hour after hour. The crowds didn’t give up, they lined the course and cheered as if their own lives depended on it.

Four of us had embarked on our own race outside the course to get ahead of Lizzie at various points in order to cheer her on - she saw us, and buoyed up found extra strength to continue. It grew very warm, and for a horrible stretch in Canary Wharf at about the 17 mile mark, the course ran between concrete walls, fences covered in black plastic that reflected the sun and heat, then progressed uphill. As difficult as that was, the runners reported it was the lack of crowd and the sudden silence that really got to them. They had to dig deep into their reserves to keep motivated so that they could emerge at 19 miles when wave-after-wave of crowd noise carried them forward once again. Lizzie looked very tired, then she saw us across the course, weaved between runners to grab our hands. Her face lit up and on she went. She finished exhausted but with arms in the air and a smile as broad as I’ve ever seen.

The family split up to return to our homes hundreds of miles from each other, and over that forty-eight hours I reflected on what got so many amateurs into a punishing training regime to do something that was once the province of elite athletes. Motivation comes in many guises, and we all have good intentions that start us off. Writers are no different. But it’s what keeps us going when things get beyond the first excitement, and the going becomes painful and far from fun, that interests me. I’ve written before about the need for resilience as a writer, and the ability to not see failure as failure, but to think of ‘success delayed’ instead. However, as a spectator of the Marathon, I was part of the outside looking in, and what I saw that day was the importance of support.

Marathon running is not really like writing, I accept that, but I think there are valuable lessons to be learned from the preparation and the race itself. Writing is a private, sometimes isolating experience, but it’s the days when the writing flows and works, when hours feel like minutes, that keep us at it. Likewise, a run where everything is balanced and your body feels like a machine, gives you the belief that you could almost run for ever. In both, you are chasing a deeply addictive trance state that keeps you truly in the moment.

I’m a writer who also runs. I don’t think I’ll ever attempt a marathon, although never say never. However, I run cross-country twice a week, most weeks of the year and have done since 2003. The exercise offsets the time I sit in a chair doing nothing but peck at a keyboard. Covid has attacked many people's mental well being as well as their physical health and some have recently found the benefits of running to improve both. It keeps me physically fit but I'm certain it’s crucial for my mental health too, and I’m not the only writer who runs to keep physical or mental demons at bay.

However, it’s a rare person who is so clear in their objectives that they can manage a challenge entirely by will power alone. Despite loving how I feel when I get back from an hour running in the open air, I have started to let it slide a little. I used to have a regular running pal, but work took her to the other side of the world. Concern that I might let her down would get me up on dark, frosty mornings, and it helped me lace my shoes when the weather is too humid for reading, let alone running. The weeks that she’s away working, tend to be the weeks I don’t manage all my runs.

Like most people I’m a sociable being, and sitting at a desk on my own is only part of who I am. Solitude is a necessary part of writing, but so is attending workshops, being a member of a class, or joining your local Stanza. Last year I launched my book and suddenly I was doing more talking than writing, but I missed my time alone. This year it's Zooms and lots of poetry. Writers develop PR networks by being part of the literary circuit and having a presence on social media, but fellow writers can’t always see when you are struggling. No one would think twice about a runner asking for help from a physio, dietician, a trainer or other club members. When they’re injured, others can see the limp, and offer help. There is a support network ready to encourage and advise and get them to run faster, or to rest. As a writer, our strains and stresses are usually invisible. It’s hard to admit to a ‘block’, or that you’ve taken on too much, or to tell your agent or a potential publisher that something isn’t working, so trustworthy support networks are vital too. Some of us get the support we need from the person sitting next to us at breakfast, but many of us don’t have that person, or perhaps our nearest and dearest are not interested or knowledgeable about writing, so we need to consider going out to look for support when we need it most.

I consider my regular runs to be the runners’ version of ‘Morning Pages’ from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way; a sort of limbering up for the day. Getting published is more akin to training for the marathon, and the preparation and honing of a manuscript is no less gruelling in its way. Our daughter also plays Rugby. She has a club physio to help her when she’s injured and she had her boyfriend - now her husband - and family to wipe her tears and encourage her when the marathon training all got too difficult. Support has played a huge part in her successes, and on Marathon day the support of strangers was a wondrous thing. Generosity was out on the streets in barrowloads. We cheered for the people we knew and cared about, but we cheered for strangers too, simply because they looked as if they might be struggling and needed help.

A very few of us do manage to reach our goals going solo, but it’s much easier with the help of others. My suspicion is that support is least available for long-form writers, and most accessible for poets, but whichever your genre, I cannot stress too strongly the value of a good support group to help you through the sticky times. It still feels lonely to be stuck in the writing doldrums, even more that so many of us are not able to meet our friends or run across like minded writers at the festivals and events that we got used to being part of our lives every summer. I’ve been there, and it’s sometimes difficult to separate what’s going on in our heads from the events that might have caused the lows. Writers’ injuries are not so easily diagnosed as those of a runner.

This is the time to seek out reassurance, encouragement, some friendly advice and guidance. At the very least, it usually helps to know that we’re not the first to experience this, and we are not alone.

Support is what most of us hope for when we book a residential course with the Arvon Foundation, go on holiday with Skyros. We can't do many of these this year, but we can become part of the Mslexia community (you don’t have to be a woman to gain ideas and direction) or join the National Centre for Writing and sign up for one of their many online courses and workshops. There are mentors, life coaches and university courses, all happy to take your money in exchange for support, or we can team up with two or three fellow writers and promise to read and critique each others’ work, or simply offload or listen to each others’ concerns over a socially distanced coffee. If we are lucky, a good agent or editor becomes the best support of all. Support is nebulous and variable. It means different things to different people. Some need constant support, others need a reliable source to tap into during times of emergency.

Whatever your personal writing low point, learn to recognise the signs. Then get the equivalent of your physio, your running club, your favourite trainers, or your dog in place. Grab all the support you can - don’t forget to offer it too - then help yourself and others to get back on your writing feet and, accompanied by the roar of the crowds, cross that finish line with your hands held high.

Recommended read: ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ by Haruki Murakami.

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